Down On The 'Boardwalk' With Terence Winter HBO's Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City in the 1920s, is about organized crime in the era of Prohibition. Series creator Terence Winter, an Emmy Award-winning writer for The Sopranos, details his enduring fascination with New Jersey gangsters.
NPR logo

Down On The 'Boardwalk' With Terence Winter

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Down On The 'Boardwalk' With Terence Winter

Down On The 'Boardwalk' With Terence Winter

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

"Boardwalk Empire," a new drama series about Atlantic City and organized crime in the era of Prohibition, premiered this month on HBO. The first episode was directed by Martin Scorsese. After it was televised, Boardwalk Empire was immediately renewed by HBO for a second season.

Our guest today is Terence Winter, creator of "Boardwalk Empire." He's comfortable with HBO and with TV mobsters: He wrote and/or produced some two-dozen hours of "The Sopranos," including the classic "Pine Barrens" episode.

"Boardwalk Empire" is HBO's biggest and most expensive prestige project since "The Sopranos." It stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, an Atlantic City politician who sees the coming of Prohibition as an opportunity to make even more money from illegal activities and kickbacks - and he's right. I spoke to Terence Winter just a few days before the premiere of "Boardwalk Empire."

Terence Winter, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. TERENCE WINTER (Creator, "Boardwalk Empire"): Thank you. It's great to be here.

BIANCULLI: You come from HBO's "The Sopranos," where you won four Emmys and were nominated for lots more, for producing, writing or co-writing individual episodes. And it's clear that HBO really, really wanted another organized crime series.

If I understand this correctly, instead of you pitching a series idea to them, they pitched one to you based on Nelson Johnson's book "Boardwalk Empire."

Mr. WINTER: Well, that's true. They didn't really specifically ask for or necessarily, as far as I knew, want an organized crime series. They really just gave me the book.

Nelson's book is essentially a history book involving the history of Atlantic City from when it was literally a mosquito-infested swamp until the present day. And, you know, all they said to me was here, look at this book. You know, see if you can find a television series in there.

There were several eras in the history of Atlantic City that I found appealing: the '20s, the '50s and the '70s. And I arrived at the '20s, and, you know, naturally, you know, in the era of Prohibition, you are going to encounter gangsters.

You know, I think I sing a few songs, and I sing them well, and one of them is the mob genre, you know, as a writer. So that's material that's always interesting to me.

And then the 1920s just offered this incredible, sweeping time in American history, with a lead character at its center, that was just absolutely compelling and a guy that I couldn't wait to set a TV series around.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's give a taste of all of that. Here's a very quick taste from the pilot episode. It's a few hours before the start of Prohibition, and Nucky Thompson, an Atlantic City power broker played by Steve Buscemi, is addressing a private meeting with the mayor and city council. It's written by you, and it's directed by Martin Scorsese.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (As Enoch "Nucky" Thompson) Boys, boys, boys. Mr. Mayor, friends, fellow members of the city council. As you know, in less than two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation's Congress.

To those beautiful, ignorant bastards.

BIANCULLI: That was actor Steve Buscemi in a scene from "Boardwalk Empire," the new drama series from HBO. My guest is the creator of the series, Terence Winter.

In the nonfiction book on which "Boardwalk Empire" is based, you know, Nucky Johnson, whom you call Nucky Thompson, is only in a few chapters in the middle of the book. So why did you decide to start with his story?

Mr. WINTER: Nucky, the real Nucky, was an incredibly charismatic character. You know, he was the county treasurer. He was the guy who ran the city. I mean, automatically that got my attention. I mean, how does the guy who essentially is third or fourth rung on the food chain, politically - the guy who's in charge of everything? And it's all by design.

He was sort of the guy behind the scenes, but nothing moved in that city without him. He was incredibly duplicitous. You know, on the one hand a really beloved politician, on the other hand, incredibly corrupt and, you know, sort of veering toward low-level gangsterism in the sense of, you know, white-collarish crimes.

He had been the sheriff himself, at one point, election rigging, you know, that type of thing.

So, you know, right off the bat, you know, it presented a main character that was sort of equal parts politician and gangster, which was fascinating. Just a really interesting backstory. He, you know, had grown up there, worked his way up. As I said, he was the sheriff, ultimately gained control of the city and just was beloved, I mean, even though he's clearly corrupt.

I think - I don't think he ever made more than $6,000 a year, legitimately, on the books, yet his residence was the entire eighth floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel. And they kept electing these guys in. And I said that, well, this is a compelling character.

BIANCULLI: Why change his last name? It's sort of like "Ragtime," where, you know, you have some real characters like Al Capone that remain correctly identified and others who are given different names or who are created by you out of whole cloth. How'd you decide what to do with whom?

Mr. WINTER: I had been a big fan of the show "Deadwood" on HBO, which was created by David Milch.

BIANCULLI: Oh, me, too, me, too.

Mr. WINTER: And as soon as I heard that they were - all those characters were based on real people, you know, the first thing I did was Google everybody. And I read about it because it was interesting and fascinating to me. So I would just Google all the different characters.

So pretty quickly, I became ahead of the story. Al Swearengen, for example, who's played by Ian McShane, lived until the 20th century, I learned. And then whenever I would watch "Deadwood," and if Al Swearengen was in a situation where there was jeopardy, I'd say to myself: Well, he's not going to die. And then I thought: I shouldn't know that. You know, it's really taking away from my experience, and I'm sure David Milch doesn't want me to know that.

But because the show is so good, I was inclined to know more about it. So I realized early on the same thing might happen here. You know, people start to look at Nucky and then compare what happened to the real Nucky as compared to our Nucky and know where the story's going.

We already have enough real characters on the show, or people based in real life, that everyone knows what happened to Al Capone and, you know, maybe to a lesser extent Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. But if everybody is real, I can't play you know, I can't manipulate the story the way I want to.

So, you know, the other thing, too, is, you know, I don't know if the real Nucky got involved in some of the things I may choose to have our Nucky do. So I said, you know what? He's Nucky, but he's not Nucky.

He's based on Nucky clearly, but our Nucky can do any number of things, and, you know, it sort of takes the handcuffs of being, you know, married to the reality there. And I think it gives us the creative license to really go anywhere we want to go.

BIANCULLI: Once you decide on having Nucky as your central character, you then have to cast him.

Mr. WINTER: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And I love Steve Buscemi. Am I pronouncing his last name correctly, by the way?

Mr. WINTER: Well, he pronounces it Buscemi.

BIANCULLI: Well, he's probably correct.

Mr. WINTER: But then I heard him say he says he doesn't he says actually in Italy, it is pronounced Buscemi. So he doesn't correct people when they say Buscemi. Most people say Buscemi, and I've sort of made it a personal cause of mine to get people to pronounce it correctly.

It's also Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi. And I'm guilty of calling him Martin Scorsese for the last 30 years, but he calls himself Martin Scorsese. So I just, it's always in my head: Scorsese, Buscemi, Scorsese, Buscemi.

BIANCULLI: All right. I'll try to play by the rules.

Mr. WINTER: But we all know who we're talking about. It's almost impossible.

BIANCULLI: But anyway, whoever he is, we'll say Steve Buscemi, he is terrific in this.

Mr. WINTER: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And just as he was terrific in supporting roles in "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski" and so many other films. But how did you and Martin Scorsese choose him as a leading man?

Mr. WINTER: You know, originally, you know, in doing the research, we looked at pictures of the real Nucky. And I had gone down to Atlantic City on, you know, weekend trips, by which I mean to drink and gamble, and just informally polled people who I would meet down there and ask them: Do you know who Nucky Johnson is? And almost nobody knew.

So we realized early on he's sort of an obscure historical character. Nobody knows what he looks like. It doesn't matter anyway. So rather than be wedded to what the real guy looked like, and he was a big, booming, you know, barrel-chested, balding guy.

You know, actually I've said, you know, had we wanted to cast somebody who looked like the real Nucky, we would have gone to James Gandolfini, who had just finished "The Sopranos," and that probably wouldn't have worked out anyway because I think he was ready to take a little break.

So we said let's forget about what the real guy was, and let's just find the best actor. And we started kicking around names and I'm pretty sure it was me who suggested Steve at first.

And Marty responded immediately. He said I love him. I worked very briefly with him on a film called "New York Stories" I did a long time ago. I would love to work with him again.

BIANCULLI: Oh, that's right.

Mr. WINTER: And I said, well, I've worked with him on "The Sopranos." He's terrific. I think he'd be great. And we kept batting around names for a few more days, and Marty called me and said I can't stop thinking about Steve Buscemi, and I said I can't either. And he said let's do it. And I said great.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Terence Winter, creator of the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

Prohibition, can you explain how Atlantic City fit into the picture in those days because if I've got this right, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were both dry states on Sundays, you know, even before Prohibition, but Atlantic City just didn't care. And how did it fit into the whole East Coast-Midwest crime scene?

Mr. WINTER: Well, you know, the happy accident for Nucky Johnson and our fictional Nucky Thompson is that they, you have a corrupt politician who runs a city that is actually on the ocean, and suddenly alcohol is illegal. And alcohol comes in through that ocean. So it was really just a gift from the gods to a corrupt person.

They say Prohibition was only a rumor in Atlantic City, and I believe that the, you know, the dry Sunday law was also just a rumor. Apparently, nothing changed at all, which actually presented us with a little difficulty on the show, because if nothing changed, and alcohol was served just as openly in Atlantic City the next day, then we really don't have a lot of conflict because it's supposed to be illegal.

So we actually probably fictionalized the fact that it's actually a little bit of a problem, that they do have to go to some pains to hide things.

But, you know, I mean, it was just an unbelievable opportunity for a man who ran a town on the seaboard because suddenly he had friends from all over the country, people who wanted to get to know him and go in business with him. And all that alcohol came, you know, down from Canada, up from the Bahamas - just however they could get it there. And this was a safe haven.

It was a port. You could come in, and of course Nucky got a piece of everything that came in, but suddenly he became friends with Arnold Rothstein, you know, Johnny Torrio from Chicago, Waxey Gordon from Philadelphia, Lucky Luciano as a young man. All of those guys wanted to vie for his attention and, you know, certainly got off to a rocky start, but it was a pretty lucky break for Nucky.

BIANCULLI: And you kept them as with their real last names because this is early in their careers, and so you're not really spoiling any surprises? Is that the thinking?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah, you know, they're so well-known, unlike Nucky, that it would be, you know, if I called them, you know, Sal Carbone, it would be pretty obvious it's Al Capone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: Nucky, you know, people dont really know.

BIANCULLI: I liked you it took me a second to get that alias you did right on the spot there.

Mr. WINTER: Thanks. Yeah, you know, those guys are so bigger than life, you know, I wanted to present them as honestly as possible.

And then for me as a writer, you know, the idea of being able to portray Al Capone as a bumbling, you know, third banana of the guy who's running Chicago at the time, was just irresistible.

You always see Al Capone at the height of his power, you know, when he's Scarface. This is the kid who's a little unsure of himself and doesn't quite know how to handle situations, and is vulnerable and actually has a wife and a young son who we'll get to meet in the series. And it's just such a great opportunity to see how this guy formed into the Al Capone we know. Same with Rothstein, same with Luciano and others that all appear on the show.

BIANCULLI: Well, I've seen six episodes, and it seems from the very start, that the generational war is as important to you as the territorial one. Is that fair?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah absolutely, and, you know, it's sort of the old story in organized crime or probably in any business endeavor. You know, the young guys are hungry and want to come up, and the old guys are a little fat and placated and don't want to, you know, rock the boat. And certainly Prohibition, you know, offered this huge opportunity to make a ton of money.

And, you know, as you see in the series and, you know, is borne out by history, Big Jim Colosimo in Chicago wasn't really interested in illegal alcohol. He was making a ton of money running whorehouses and trafficking in other areas of crime. And he felt like it was more problems, more trouble than it was worth.

And of course, the young guys say him leaving millions of dollars on the table, and as usually happens, they moved him out of the way. And it happens all the time. It's sort of the way it works. When the young guys see an opportunity, I think if you're in charge, you better go along with that or start seriously thinking about cashing in the retirement plan.

BIANCULLI: Terence Winter, creator of the HBO period crime series "Boardwalk Empire." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Terence Winter, creator of the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

In the '20s, you've got two movements going on at the same time. One is Prohibition, and the other is suffrage, you know, women's rights. And yet somehow those two movements went hand in hand or certainly helped each other. How did that work?

Mr. WINTER: Prohibition was a long time coming. I mean, it didn't happen overnight. There were anti-saloon leagues. You know, from the mid-19th century on, you know, there was a movement to outlaw alcohol. And that's one of the things we took some pains to explore on the show.

A lot of times, in the 1920s, in the Prohibition era and the women behind the temperance movement are sort of depicted as a bunch of killjoys and party poopers, and, you know, they want to prevent people from having a good time.

There was a real reason for Prohibition, a real reason for wanting it. There weren't social programs set up in the older days when you know, if dad was an alcoholic, and the breadwinner was not making money, families were destroyed. Kids didn't eat. Kids went to orphanages. Women were destitute. And, you know, even though the experiment of Prohibition failed miserably, there was a real reason for it.

But it, you know, in passing Prohibition, I think, you know, it gave women power. I mean, it really showed that when they banded together, and the Prohibition, the temperance movement was pretty much made up of women, when they banded together, they could get things done.

So the, you know, getting the vote, you know, coming in the same year was sort of, you know, just obviously the next level of power for women. And we get to explore I mean, both of those things happen in the same year, which is just incredible.

BIANCULLI: On "The Sopranos," you worked under David Chase, and one of your writing partners was Matt Weiner, who went on to create "Mad Men." What did you take away the most, you know, about creating characters and about, you know, the pace of "The Sopranos," the patience of it was so unusual and the way characters wouldn't say what they thought all the time. I mean, what did you learn while you were there?

Mr. WINTER: Well, just that. You know, if you're truly depicting human behavior in an honest way, it is a lot of miscommunication, non-communication, paranoia, passive aggressiveness. People don't finish sentences. They don't say what they mean. They lie to each other. They take credit for things that are actually other people's ideas.

I mean, all of this stuff is just delicious when you're creating characters because and "The Sopranos" was one of the first places I ever saw where it really felt like real people, I mean, completely honest. And, you know, people don't always have the right words.

They don't have the ability to stand up and eloquently state their case. They fum - or they backtrack, just as I'm doing now, and that's more real, and that's what David David taught us trust that. It's okay. You know, it's actually better that way.

And David, the biggest lesson I learned from him, and this is very simple, but it seems like it should be obvious, but it's not, he just said be entertaining. That's your job: Be entertaining. That's what this is. And I just, that's the you know, it's not written on a sign in my writers' room, but it should be, you know, those two words.

BIANCULLI: So if the biggest lesson that you learned from David Chase was to be entertaining, what's the biggest lesson you learned when you finally got to work with Martin Scorsese?

Mr. WINTER: It was very different. You know, in TV, writers generally are the show runners, and they have enormous control over everything. In feature films, very often the writer will turn in a script and never be heard from again.

Marty was incredibly collaborative and solicitous of my opinion with things, which was just incredible. I mean, really, he approached television completely differently because it's something he didn't really know about necessarily. He didn't really watch TV, just really is a cinema buff, obviously. And television was something new.

So even early on in the process, I had to describe how the TV season worked, and early on, he started reading some of the early scripts for the show, and he called me up, and he said God, this is great. You get to see what happens to the characters after the movie is over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: So for him, the pilot is the movie, and then everything else is after the movie. So I thought well, that's such a of course that's how he sees this, the movie and then later...

BIANCULLI: That's funny.

Mr. WINTER: ...endless number of sequels. So it was again a whole different thing for me. I mean, obviously I defer to him creatively whatever across the board. I mean, he set the template for what the show looks like and feels like and the tone visually and in so many other ways.

But again, you know, he was enormously collaborative, and it was great. So, you know, I think one of the things I took away from that was that here's a man who is, you know, an icon of cinema and is just, you know, one for my money the best American director ever.

And if he's comfortable enough to come into a situation and surround himself with people who may know more about that medium than he does and ask questions and actually be inclusive, that's something to take away is that you can be confident enough certainly, he knows he's Martin Scorsese, and he knows he knows what to do, but he's comfortable enough to let you actually take part in that, and it was great.

BIANCULLI: Writer and executive producer Terence Winter, creator of the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," which airs Sundays. We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Let's continue our conversation with Terence Winter, creator and executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire," the new period drama series from HBO. The show takes place in Atlantic City in the 1920s, and to recapture that era, one of the things the production team did was build a two-block full-scale recreation of the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk.

HBO threw so much money at this thing. If the estimates that I've seen in print are true, it's like $20 million for the pilot. Is that anywhere near?

Mr. WINTER: That's fair.

BIANCULLI: That's fair?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah. That's a fair estimate. Yes.

BIANCULLI: That's like twice the pilot for "Lost," which made headlines for how much that cost just a few years ago.

Mr. WINTER: I dont think it's twice.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. WINTER: I think "Lost" is about $14 million.

BIANCULLI: All right. So how is it spent? I mean I know you have a set in Brooklyn, and I want you to describe that, but what was important for you to get on the screen and why?

Mr. WINTER: Well, I kept a lot of that money. HBO doesnt know this but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: ...we funneled it into a bank account in Queens. No I...

BIANCULLI: How appropriate for an Atlantic City sort of history story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: No, seriously, I mean this obviously, the expense of this endeavor was something that was very apparent to me early on. Even reading the book and looking at pictures of what the old Atlantic City looked like, it doesnt -it's not there anymore. And I, you know, I was kind of disheartened because I started to really get interested in doing this and I thought there's no way we can afford to do this. I mean we - on a television budget we cannot afford a boardwalk or an empire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: And it's ludicrous to do a series about Atlantic City and never go to the Boardwalk. I mean we would have characters just refer, oh, I was just on the Boardwalk, it looks great, and just hear music and the sound of the ocean and never see it. So this is insane, you know, why are we doing this? And I thought my pilot script is going to be one of these things that people read and say yeah, it was really fun and great, but, you know, we really can't do this. And I was watching "John Adams" on HBO, the miniseries, and they did a behind the scenes segment and I saw what they were able to do digitally.

There's one moment in particular, they showed Paul Giamatti riding a horse across an open field and then suddenly, digitally, in the background, the City of Boston circa 1774 appeared. And at that moment I said, we can actually do this. This is possible. It's still going to be expensive, but it's doable. Now we could put it in a framework of a TV series that actually might work. And you know, its fair to say its akin to the show "Rome," in terms of budget and scope and also a massive period piece. But that's in the business model. We might be able to make this work.

So, yeah, I mean I knew building - we needed a boardwalk. We had to build it ultimately, and we scouted locations, starting in the real Atlantic City to Asbury Park. And then ultimately, it became more cost-effective to build a replica that is literally the size of a football field in Brooklyn and then augment that digitally. And that was the work of our amazing production designer Bob Shaw.

And then everything else, just the, you know, we decided, you know, and this was again, the choice of Mr. Scorsese, was are we going to try to depict the reality of what Atlantic City in 1920 looked like or is it going to be a stylized version of that. And we opted for reality and which meant great pains had to be taken to get things right, hair, makeup, clothing, details of every kind, the props, every set was really fine-tooth combed and really did incredible amounts of research, so and that all, you know, it all cost money.

Just to do a street scene in Brooklyn requires two days of prep to get the street, and this is, you know, you say oh, all the buildings are from the correct period, but air conditioners, streetlights, pavement, mailboxes, there's any number of things that have to be removed, covered up, taken out, cleaned up, dirtied up, as the case may be.


Mr. TYLER: So it's a real - everything costs money, of course, and I think it's all up there on the screen now.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Terence Winter, creator of the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

The story of how you got into show business is a great story but I'm not even sure I believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Can you tell it briefly? I mean I know that...

Mr. TYLER: I will.

BIANCULLI: You know, just go for it.

Mr. WINTER: Okay. Grew up in Brooklyn, blue collar family, went to a very blue collar vocational high school, studied auto mechanics, had a high school teacher who told me I had a knack for writing, didnt really plan on going to college, ultimately I did, went to NYU, studied journalism, political science, worked my way through school. I was a doorman and when I graduated, I found out that journalists made half the money that doormen make.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: So even though I was...


Mr. TYLER: ...maybe...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, keep going.

Mr. WINTER: Yeah, initially, yeah, certainly, and I said well, I want to make a lot of money. So the only two jobs I knew that paid a lot of money were doctor and lawyer. So I went to law school, and went to night school, worked my way through, was miserable, absolutely not the career for me. And I spent two years as the world's worst lawyer in Manhattan and finally did some soul searching and said I want to be a writer. That's really what I want to do. And I packed up. I had never been west of Chicago. I had never written a script either but I just, I knew instinctively that this was something I could do.

And I showed up in Los Angeles, got a job so I could pay my bills during the day and started writing spec scripts at night. Spec scripting is sample script that you use as a calling card to get on a show.


Mr. WINTER: And, you know, up until that point in my life I was pretty good at getting to be where I wanted to be. I was always able to achieve what I wanted and meet my goals. And finally I'm - I finally identify the thing I really want to do and I just cannot break into this business. Its, the Catch-22 in writing or in Hollywood is that you can't get a job unless you have an agent and you can't get an agent unless you have a job.

BIANCULLI: Right. Right.

Mr. WINTER: So, even though I had scripts people loved, they said well, you know, you need an agent and I just could not, I would cold call agents and have great conversations, and then inevitably weeks would go by and they'd say, who are you again, and it was just impossible. So I went down to the Writer's Guild and they had a list of agents who would take unsolicited material. And one of the names on the list was a guy I went to law school with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: And I call him up in New York and I asked him, are you an agent now? And he said no, I'm a real estate attorney but one of my clients wrote a book on real estate and I use my fee to get bonded as an agent, but I dont know anything about it. And I said I dont know either but I need an agent and guess what? Youre my agent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: So he said okay. I said here's the deal: I'm going to create an agency. I'm going to - will come up with a phony name, I'll get a Mailboxes Etc. address, I'll get letterhead. Ill get a voicemail system. Ill submit my scripts under your name. If we get anything I'll give you 10 percent like a real agent, and he said, all right, great.

So anyway, I photocopied all my scripts and I took a day off from work and I literally hit every sitcom office in L.A. And I gave my scripts and I told whoever was sitting behind the desk, I said yeah, hi, I'm the messenger from the agency. This is - these are those scripts you wanted. And the kid behind the desk would say oh, okay, and so at least my scripts now were theoretically in buildings where people could hire me and they would read them because they did come in from an agent.

So a couple of weeks went by and it was a Friday afternoon and our voicemail had a message. And I listened and it was the executive producer of the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," a woman named Winifred Hervey Stallworth. And she said, yeah, hi Doug, this is Win Hervey of "Fresh Prince." I read Terry Winter's scripts. I think they're really good. I'd like to maybe have him in to pitch some ideas.

So I was really excited. I called Doug in New York and he was gone for the weekend. It was 4 o'clock in L.A. and it was a Friday night in New York, and I thought oh God, he's gone, he's gone. I got to wait until Monday now. And then I thought, well, you know, he doesnt really know anything about being an agent either, so I can just call and say I'm him and cut out the middle man. So I called and I said I was him and she said yeah, you know, we're having Terry in - yeah we'd like to have Terry in to pitch ideas. And she said, you know, "Fresh Prince" is sort of a teenage-oriented show. Does he have one more script that, you know, maybe is kind of teenagey(ph)?

And I said yeah, he's got, he just finished a great "Wonder Years" spec, which was a lie. She had had everything I'd written at that point. And I said but, you know, Terry's out of town for the weekend. I can probably get it to you like by Tuesday. So she said yeah, great, Tuesday's fine. So I hung up the phone and from Friday night until Tuesday afternoon I cranked out a "Wonder Years" script.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: Then I threw my baseball hat back on, went as the messenger again, yeah, here's the message from the agent.

BIANCULLI: So youre the messenger, the agent and the writer?

Mr. WINTER: I'm everybody, janitor, every, yeah - full service agency. So I gave them the script and they had me in to pitch ideas and that was sort of my first foot in the door. And it was great. And shortly thereafter, I got into a program Warner Brothers runs, which is a godsend for writers called the Warner Brothers Sitcom Writers Workshop. They also run a show for drama writers but at the time I wanted to be a sitcom writer.

And at the end of the show they call - the end of the program rather, they called me in at the end of the 10 weeks and they said we have an interesting situation. We have a show. It's not a sitcom but it's a drama that has a lot of comedy in it. And I said well, why me? And they said well, its about a blue collar guy who becomes a lawyer for a stuffy white collar firm. Do you think you could write that? And I said if I dont get this job I'm leaving.


Mr. WINTER: I'm getting on a plane. And that was my first job. It was a show called "The Great Defender," co-created by a guy named Frank Renzulli...


Mr. WINTER: ...who then later on went on to be one of the writers on "The Sopranos."

BIANCULLI: All right. Well, Terence Winter, thanks very much for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. WINTER: Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you, David.

BIANCULLI: Terence Winter, creator of the new period drama series, "Boardwalk Empire," which is televised Sundays on HBO.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, actor Jim Parsons, who plays geeky Sheldon on the CBS sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory." This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.